TPSD leaders: Achievement gap should be focus

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tupelo school leaders expressed a commitment during Tuesday’s school board meeting to place an increased emphasis on the district’s achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers.
“We need to address it and keep it in front of our community until we have exhausted every level of discrepancy in the achievement gap without lowering the expectations for our highest-performing students,” Tupelo Public School District Interim Superintendent David Meadows said during Tuesday’s meeting.
Results on last spring’s state tests revealed a significant gulf between students of different financial standing. Daily Journal analysis of those results showed that about 75 percent of third-to-eighth grade students who don’t live in poverty scored proficient on those math and language arts tests. Only 39 percent of those receiving federal meal subsidies reached that mark. The 36 percentage-point gap was among the largest such gaps in the state.
Proficient is regarded by educators as being successful on those tests. The Daily Journal’s analysis ran during its recent “Bridging the Gap” series that explored the district’s achievement gap and strategies for addressing it.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Meadows and TPSD Testing Coordinator Lea Johnson made a report on the issue and presented updated achievement gap data from a test given to many of the district’s students during the fall.
Following that presentation, board member Rob Hudson said he feels the board should explicitly set addressing the achievement gap as one of its goals because it would be a good marker of student achievement.
Board member Beth Stone said she agreed and added that while closing the gap, the district must also ensure it is challenging its higher-performing students to also raise their scores.
Data presented on Tuesday came from the common assessment test that is written by teachers in the district and is designed to prepare students for state tests. It is given after each academic quarter to help educators see their students’ weaknesses early so that they can address them immediately. Many of its questions come from an educational database that analyzes the items to ensure they closely match the ones on the state test in content and difficulty level.
An average of 81.1 percent of Tupelo’s non-impoverished third- to eighth-graders passed the tests given at the end of the first nine weeks, according to the data shared on Tuesday. A passing score correlates to proficient on the state test.
Meanwhile, 48.8 percent of third- to eighth-grade students living in poverty reached that mark, for a gap of 32.3 percentage points. That data is for language and math tests, the same ones used in the Daily Journal’s analysis.
Including first- and second-graders and four high school tests, the district’s average gap was 28.5 percentage points.
First- and second-graders don’t take state tests, and high school students only take them in four subjects: Algebra 1, biology, English 2 and U.S. history. The district-wide gap total also includes science tests that were given in fifth, seventh and eighth grades.
Meadows said the district broke down its data by economic status in order to keep a focus on the issue. He said he was encouraged to see that the gap was smaller than it was during the spring, even though the test came from a different source.
Meadows credited work done by teachers over the summer to rewrite the district’s curriculum and create guides that pace teachers as they teach that material.
“What I am happy about is that this (data) shows we have started that focus,” Meadows said. “We are in recognition of that achievement gap that exists among subgroups of our students. Furthermore, we are in recognition that we must strive for excellence and push all of our students to achieve at high levels.”
Hudson requested that the board receive similar data after each quarter’s common assessment.
The analysis revealed that some teachers had very small achievement gaps, Johnson said, adding that the district can learn from what they are doing.
Meadows cited several ways the district is working to address the issue.
He said that tools that teachers now have allow them to better analyze the data on each of their students and to use the information to guide what they teach. Teachers and principals now meet to discuss how they can help each other improve individual students, he said.
Meanwhile, teams of Tupelo administrators and teachers are visiting Mississippi schools that had good test scores, Meadows said, noting they will implement strategies learned on those trips.
The district is in an ongoing process of examining all of its programs to find out which ones are helping student achievement and which are no longer effective and should be changed or eliminated, he said.
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com

Click here for Chris Kieffer’s Achievement Gap Series from the NEMS Daily Journal.